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Perspective | Magazine

The stories we tell ourselves about homeless people

Stories can be easier than the truth. The truth might reveal something that is uncomfortable to know.

Image from Adobe Stock; Globe staff photo illustration

Working downtown, you get to know the people on the street who ask for money, if not always by their names. Among the morning regulars around South Station are the silent guy with the tall cup and the guy who survived a stroke, or so says the sign he holds. During the evening rush, the funny guy sometimes stretches out on the sidewalk, fires off little quips, and organizes his coins by their dates. He has a pleasing voice with some gravel in it, “Can anybody spare a little help, please?”

I don’t know a thing about these men, who may be among the estimated 6,203 homeless people in Boston. I only know that they have become an indelible part of my commute over the past two-plus years, since The Boston Globe newsroom moved downtown from Dorchester.

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Who even carries cash anymore to drop into cups? Cash is the rotary phone of the digital economy — old-fashioned and even annoying if you have to use it. But when I do happen to have some bills on me, I’m usually happy to make somebody else’s day a little better. The feeling I get improves my day in return.

Except that now I have an ethical dilemma that has bothered me for months.

Here is what happened:

It is impossible to give to everybody all the time, so I picked one regular. I thought of him as “my guy.” Whenever I saw my guy, I gave him whatever modest amount of cash I had on me and we would chat a bit. I reintroduced myself to him each time and was never sure he remembered me, but so what? I remembered him.

Why this guy?

Maybe because of the way he posed with his cup, unmoving and with his gaze deliberately cast to the ground, as if saying let me spare you the tiny disgrace of looking away to avoid meeting my eye. He was, for me, a specific, haunting fictional character come to life — the nameless man scorched by lightning in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.

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As they passed he looked down. As if he’d done something wrong. His shoes were bound up with wire and coated with roadtar and he sat there in silence, bent over in his rags.

I don’t know how my guy spent the money and I don’t care. That’s not the ethical dilemma. I know — people panhandling on the street might use the money for drugs. Well yeah, maybe, if they need drugs. I’ve always been comfortable not knowing. Once the money hit the bottom of his cup, it belonged to him. It’s none of my business what other people do with their money.

I would see my guy a few times a month. I don’t want to describe him too specifically because there is no point in making his life any harder.

That’s because I learned a few months ago — by accident through another journalist; it never occurred to me to look for this information — that my guy is a sex offender.

My guy, according to the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, is a convicted rapist. The crime was a long time ago, but does that matter?

This is the dilemma. Do I continue putting money in his cup or not?

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My knee-jerk first reaction: No. Hell no.

That was followed by some more considered reactions:

A) His situation is unchanged by what I learned about him. B) A violent crime from long ago doesn’t undo the fact that he’s a human being on the street during the winter. C) And the doctrines of forgiveness and redemption are why I am still Roman Catholic, if only the cafeteria variety.

And yet . . .

This is a crime I personally have no standing to forgive.

While we easily accept that someone can be a former thief, the stain of committing rape seems permanent, like a repugnant tattoo. Even if you try to remove it there is a scar.

I don’t know the identity of the victim in his case, and do not intend to find out. Maybe she never thinks of the distant past, but I doubt it. (I say “she,” though that is only a guess.) I easily imagine her gasping awake from nightmares that drag her unwillingly back to what may be the worst day of her life.

My guy has been around a few times since I learned about his criminal history. And each time I’ve avoided him, walking on with confused feelings that definitely include shame. By not giving him money, it seems like I’m judging his worth as a person. Who among us is qualified to do that? It is the least charitable thing we can do to each other . . .

. . . and the debate in my head starts over.

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We tell ourselves stories about homeless men and women on the streets, and we make judgments whether we like to admit it or not. Is this guy really looking for $2 for a bus ticket home? Is that guy really a veteran?

Stories can be easier than the truth. The truth might reveal something that is uncomfortable to know.

The story I tell myself is from that McCarthy novel. It is now too easy to see myself in another character, the one who does not stop to help the man scorched by lightning. First by telling himself there is nothing to do. And then, as he glances back, by no longer seeing a man.

The burned man had fallen over and at that distance you couldn’t even tell what it was.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.